Doubling Down

With House Win, GOP Pushes Food-Stamp Cuts to the Far Right

The House GOP’s vote to cut $40 billion from SNAP pushed the debate to the far right.

One after another, a parade of Democrats went before the microphone, held up a flier with a picture on it: a grandmother in Arkansas, an unemployed mother in Ohio, a veteran, a cancer survivor, on and on, all faces of the hungry in America. Flustered by the theatrics, Republican Pete Sessions of Texas sought to clarify the GOP’s proposed $40 billion cut in food stamps, or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, explaining that only able-bodied adults would be removed from the rolls if they’re not looking for work.

Democrat Jim McGovern countered that if his Republican colleague had trouble with the waivers that allow governors to exempt people from the work requirements associated with receiving government benefits, “you should talk to your governor.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry is among those who requested waivers for their states during the economic downturn because there were no jobs, and they weren’t going to let people go hungry.

Those waivers are one of the reasons SNAP ballooned to cover some 47 million people. Almost half of them are children; two thirds of the adults are women. Those able-bodied men the Republicans have such a hard time helping have families, or they are working, but can’t make ends meet without assistance. If cuts of the magnitude the GOP is proposing go through, 3.5 million Americans would lose their benefits, including 170,000 veterans.

Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly borrowed a quote from the McCarthy era, posing the question to his Republican colleagues, “Have you no decency?” Behind the scenes Thursday, Democrats were scrambling to see if they could get enough Republicans to defeat the bill. It passed 217-210, with only Republicans voting in favor, but the dirty little secret is that pass or fail, the next step in the process is a conference with the Senate, which passed a farm bill with a $5 billion cut in SNAP. “In some ways, it’s a show vote, an attempt by Republicans to move the target to the right,” says James Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center.

Sessions conceded as much, saying passage of the bill would “arm” Rep. Frank Lucas, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the agriculture committee, when he goes into conference with the Senate to reconcile the two vastly different bills. Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, ranking member on the ag committee, said, “There’s no reason to pass this bill except to placate some people. The bill is going nowhere, so I don’t know what we’re doing. All this bill does is make it harder to pass a new farm bill; harder, not impossible.”

The backstory of the SNAP bill is as much about internal Republican Party dynamics as it is about Republicans versus Democrats. After the GOP failed to pass a farm bill this summer, the leadership separated farm subsidies from food stamps, breaking a historic bond that had benefited both rural and urban interests. The GOP then passed a stand-alone farm bill that significantly boosted crop subsidies, long derided by conservatives as wasteful, even as House Republicans doubled down on cuts to SNAP, from $20 billion to $40 billion.

The conservative National Review in an online editorial said the GOP’s focus on food stamps shows “a total tin ear to American politics,” pointing out that Mitt Romney lost because voters didn’t think he cared about average Americans. “And why are conservatives overlooking a far more egregious abuse of taxpayer dollars in the farm bill?”

McGovern complained that the bill members voted on Thursday was “written in Eric Cantor’s living room.” What he meant by that is the GOP leadership took their cues from Heritage Action, Club for Growth, and Americans for Prosperity, far-right groups driving the debate in a hyperpartisan political climate along with Fox News, which repeatedly aired news of a California surfer dude bragging that he was buying lobster and sushi with food stamps.

With or without these cuts, Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf said enrollment in the program would be declining as the economy improves. SNAP is structured to expand during hard times, and historically the numbers come down, with the average amount of time a recipient spends on the program just nine months.

The food-stamp program has been a huge success, says Weill, historically attracting bipartisan support and picking up the slack in an economy where median family income, according to census data released this week, hasn’t budged in decades—and where the bottom 20 to 30 percent is losing ground. “It’s a victim of its own success, with Republicans saying it’s just too big, government is too large,” says Weill. He notes with a touch of irony that the most successful government programs today are food stamps and quantitative easing. You could say they’re both government handouts, but only when the least among us get them is there a political ruckus.

As if to underscore the double standard, CNN reported on a Democratic congresswoman outing two GOP lawmakers for dining out on government subsidies, while voting to deny basic food assistance to the poor.